I think the time has come to consider a new generation of bookshops befitting the lifestyle most of us enjoy or endure in modern 21st century Britain. It is easy to say leave our bookshops alone, because we love them the way they are.. Nice sentiments, but if we're not careful we will be looking back at our bookshops with nostalgia, because they won't exist anymore.
There is no doubt that internet shopping has hit the High Street for six. Prior to the eBook revolution, Amazon and the big supermarkets were undercutting prices well below High Street bookshops. It has been argued enough already that the eBook should be embraced by the retail industry as an added extra to enhance the experience of reading . It's an added extra, and people are beginning to accept the hypothesis that eBooks and printed books can, and will, coexist with each other, within the same marketplace. Waterstones, WHSmith and Barnes & Noble, in the US, have added eBooks to their stock which can be bought on their websites. That's all very well and good, but websites are not bookshops in the High Street, and there lies the problem, the High Street.
I've already mentioned the problem of books selling cheaply in supermarkets. But the damage is minimal compared to the devastation they have caused in the High Street. Who would have thought good old Woolworths, the nation's favourite for so many generations, would fall by the wayside like so many others, leaving their boarded up carcasses behind. There is not much in the High Street that you can't get in the big Supermarket chains. It's a sad fact of life, and we all live near one.
So what's changed? I don't think it's all down to the internet. More people than ever work anti social hours, another niche for supermarkets. More people drive, but town centres are not friendly places for the motorist any more. Supermarkets don't charge exorbitant parking charges and if they do they refund you when you shop in the store. Supermarkets are strategically placed, not so far out of town to be inaccessible, but on the edge of town to capture passing trade from major highways.
How much passing trade does Waterstones have, amongst so many boarded up shops within a town centre? A typical shopping trip for, let's say a family of four, may entail Dad needing to go to the bank, Mum wants some shoes, the kids need new clothes for school and if they behave, they have a Happy Meal at MacDonald's. They pass Waterstones. Mum heads for the crime fiction section whilst Dad would like to browse the sport books, and they have to kids to contend with. Their visit is likely to be brief.
What if there was a Waterstones, on a standalone plot just outside of town, thoughtfully constructed, in a pleasant setting, perhaps near a river, complete with its own parking facilities, within cycling distance and on a bus route. Within the building is a cafe, maybe Costa Coffee, as Costa is already established in several of Waterstones stores. What if there were more seating amongst the books, a terrace to sit outdoors with tables and umbrellas? It's a whole new concept. Shopping time has no place in bookstores, that's why they don't sit very well in town any more. Whereas an out of town bookstore in the way I've described would benefit from people who have planned a visit to the store as a leisure trip which would allow for more time to spend there. Bookshops are enticing places to linger. It might become a meeting place, a place to study, a place for reading circles, a place for writing circles, a place where readers meet writers.
It all seems a little too idealistic, but maybe worth piloting a store or two, perhaps on the outskirts of a university town, but ideally avoiding retail parks.
Unrealistic? Maybe, maybe not. During the 1990's I visited such an establishment outside Houston in Texas. It is the only Barnes and Noble store that I have been to, so I cannot say whether or not this was typical for the whole chain. People didn't go there primarily to buy books. I was struck by the atmosphere of the place. It was a place to hang out, a place to chill, perhaps a place to fall in love.
A meeting place for people who read and a comfortable environment in good company. Let's face it, readers are generally jolly nice people to be around. A place where writer's may enjoy a more informal book signing day, spending some quality time amongst the writer's own readers, and at the same time recruit a few more readers.